Movie Review: JAWS (1975)

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JAWS, MOVIE POSTERJAWS, 1975
Movie Reviews

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb
Review by Steven Loeb

SYNOPSIS:

When a gigantic great white shark begins to menace the small island community of Amity, a police chief, a marine scientist and grizzled fisherman set out to stop it.

 

REVIEW:

What causes people to be scared of the unknown? Most often, it is that which can’t be seen that is the most terrifying. The imagination, it seems, is capable of conjuring images that are far worse than anything real could ever be. The best horror films are the ones that capitalize on the reactions people have to the things that are beyond their scope, be it something from another world, or, as in the case of Jaws, something that lies just below the ocean’s surface.

The plot of Jaws centers around a man-eating great white shark, terrorizing beachgoers at a summer resort. The Chief of Police, played by Roy Scheider, lobbies to close the beach, but is overridden by the town mayor. After more people are killed on the Fourth of July, the Chief, a marine biologist, and a shark hunter go out to kill the shark before it can claim another victim.

The ultimate success of the film is one of the most unlikely stories in cinema history. The original novel was written in 1974 by a first time author named Peter Benchley. The book, despite not being well received by critics, was a giant success, selling nearly ten million copies. A film adaptation was inevitable and, despite it being such a hot property, it was entrusted to an unknown filmmaker with only one other feature film under his belt, a twenty-nine year old named Steven Spielberg.

The production of Jaws was plagued with problems that have now become the stuff of legend. Mechanical sharks broke down constantly, causing the movie to go way over budget and scenes to be rewritten as the movie was being filmed. And yet, when all was said and done, despite all probability, it was the highest grossing movie of all time up until that point. It became the first movie ever to make over $100 million dollars, making it the first real blockbuster and forever changing the way movies would be marketed.

Ironically, in retrospect it seems that the problems that Spielberg encountered while making the film are at least partially what led to its ultimate success. Since the mechanical sharks refused to work, Spielberg was forced to improvise, shooting around the shark and from its point of view, thereby making the film even more suspenseful and the shark that much more terrifying even though it was not seen until at least an hour into the film. Also contributing to the suspense was John William’s, now classic, and also Oscar winning, score, made up of merely two notes played over and over again, starting out slowly but steadily speeding up into frenzy. Some have likened the score to the heartbeat of the shark, as it is getting ready to feed. This, combined with the Oscar winning editing of Verna Fields, was instrumental in creating suspense and terror in audiences.

What separates Jaws from other scary movies and blockbusters are the characters. Often in movies like this characters are one-dimensional and underdeveloped, and when they inevitably die there is no emotion attached. In Jaws, however, there are three relatable characters that we care about and who have very clear motivations. There is police chief Brody, the hero of the story and the most relatable character, due both to his fear of the water and his concern for the family he seeks to protect. He is the everyman of the story, and the one who’s eyes we see everything through. Richard Dreyfuss plays Hooper, the marine biologist, who is the first one to spell out how dangerous the shark is. Robert Shaw is the shark hunter named Quint, who has the most personal reason for wanting to kill the shark. When the three men are on the water, Quint delivers a speech about being on the USS Indianapolis when it went down and watching his shipmates being eaten by sharks; it is one of the most memorable moments in film history. This speech helps the audience understand exactly what drives him. That is due to, not only, the excellent acting of Shaw, who delivers the best performance in the film, but also the script, which took a poorly received novel and turned it into a story filled with relatable characters who we care about.

Scheider, Dreyfuss and Shaw are three excellent actors who have very strong chemistry together. Although the entire second half of the film is the three of them on the boat together, hunting the shark, and not for one second is it dull or boring.

The movie would be nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, ultimately winning three of them, yet, surprisingly, it did not receive a nomination for directing or for any acting categories. It did not take long for the Academy to recognize Spielberg, however, as he was nominated for three of his next four films.

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